At this point, there is virtually no one in Israel or the United States who thinks it is remotely possible that the Obama administration would ever, under virtually any circumstances, use force against Iran. Though President Obama and his foreign policy team have always claimed that “all options,” including force, are always on the table in the event that Iran refuses to back down and seeks to produce a nuclear weapon, that is a threat that few took seriously. But President Obama has never been quite as explicit about this before as he was in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 in which he reportedly said there is no military option to stop Iran. If Obama wanted to telegraph Iran that it could be as tough as it likes in the talks over the final text of the nuclear deal being negotiated this month this statement certainly did the job. Though they had little worry about Obama’s toughness or resolve, the ayatollahs will be pleased to note that the president no longer even bothers to pretend he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear ambition.
“A military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.”
Though he continued to use rhetoric that left force as an option, the implicit threat of American action if a nuclear weapon were a possibility has lacked credibility since the president began his second term. Once he embarked upon secret back-channel talks in which, one by one, he abandoned his previous pledges about forcing Iran to shut down its program in concessions and virtually every other U.S. position on the issue, force was never a real possibility. The signing of a weak interim deal in November, 2013, and then the framework agreed upon this spring signaled the end of any idea that the U.S. was prepared to act. That is especially so because the current deal leaves Tehran in possession of its nuclear infrastructure and with no guarantees about inspections or the re-imposition of sanctions in the event the agreement collapsed. The current deal, even with so many crucial details left unspecified makes Iran a U.S. partner and, in effect, the centerpiece of a new U.S. Middle East policy that essentially sidelines traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel that are directly threatened by Iran.
Moreover, it must be conceded that the use of force against Iran would be problematic even for the United States and its vast military resources. As for Israel, despite a lot of bold talk by some in the Jewish state, there has always been skepticism that its outstanding air force had the ability to sustain an air campaign for the length of time that would be required to make a difference. Nevertheless, the notion that force would not be effective in forestalling an Iranian bomb is mistaken. Serious damage could put off the threat for a long time and, if sanctions were kept in place or made stricter as they should have been to strengthen the West’s bargaining position, the possibility of an Iranian nuke could have been put off for the foreseeable future.
Yet, while talk about using force has been largely obsolete once the interim deal was signed in 2013, for the president to send such a clear signal that he will not under any circumstances walk away from the current talks, no matter what Iran does, is significant.
After all, some of the most important elements of the deal have yet to be nailed down. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that he will never allow the sort of inspections that would make a deal verifiable. He has also demanded that sanctions be lifted permanently on the day the agreement is signed, and that there should be no provision for them to be snapped back. Nor are the Iranians conceding that their stockpile of nuclear fuel be taken out of their hands.
So if Obama is to get the “verifiable tough agreement” he told Channel 2 he seeks, the U.S. must somehow convince the Iranians to back down on all these points. That’s going to be difficult since the past two years of negotiations with Obama have taught them to wait for him to give up since he always does so sooner or later. The president’s statement makes it clear that, no matter how obdurate the Iranians remain, he will never walk away from the talks. And since this deal is the lynchpin of his foreign policy legacy, they know very well that all they have to do is to be patient.
Iran already knows that the deal in its current form allows them two clear paths to a bomb. One is by cheating on its easily evaded terms. The other is by waiting patiently for it to expire, the sunset provision being another astonishing concession by Obama.
If a tough deal were even a possibility, this would have been the moment for the president to sound tough. But throughout this process, the only toughness the president has shown has been toward Israel as he sought to disparage and dismiss its justifiable worries about his course of action. Merely saying now, as he does in the Channel 2 interview, that he understands Israel’s fears is mere lip service, especially since it comes along with a virtual guarantee to Iran that it needn’t worry about a U.S. strike under any circumstance.
With only weeks to go until the June 30 deadline for an Iran deal, there is no question that Obama’s statement makes an unsatisfactory final text even more certain than it was before. That’s good news for Tehran and very bad news for an Israeli people who have no reason to trust the president’s promises or believe in his good intentions.